Ginger Nuts of Horror
1980. I didn’t consider myself to be a reader of any particular genre. In fact, I’m not even sure we used that word at that time. I read everything I could lay my hands on. One day it might be Virginia Woolf, the next Agatha Christie or Stephen King, followed by Boris Pasternak and a generous helping of Jean-Paul Sartre. In common with many people in those pre-Amazon/Kindle days, I belonged to a monthly mail order book club called World Books and eagerly awaited their ‘Book of the Month’ recommendation.
One month they did things differently. Instead of one book, they offered a series – Riverworld – and the offer was based on all four books. The subject intrigued me. The famous explorer, Sir Richard Francis Burton has died and somehow ended up in a strange new world, with new challenges and adventures. I sat back and waited for it to arrive. The first in the series was ‘To Your Scattered Bodies Go’ and I opened it, eager to get started. On the cover, I read:
He remembered his death. It had come as a blackness…a nothingness: he had not even been aware that his heart had stopped. Then his eyes opened…
I was hooked. Today, all these years later, I still am.
Philip José Farmer won many literary awards in his time, including a Hugo for Riverworld. As a science-fiction/fantasy author, he created more than one world on which he based a series. The four original books in the Riverworld series were written between 1971-1980, with a follow up (‘Gods of Riverworld’) published in 1983. The premise is quite simple. Every person who has ever lived on Earth – from the first sentient human to the present day - wake up to find themselves inhabiting a planet known as Riverworld, named after ‘the most immense river ever travelled by man’. Sir Richard Burton sets out on a quest to find out where they are, why they’re there, what this place is, who is responsible for their current situation and, of course, why they’re here in the first place.
The masterminds behind this incredible experiment have ensured that each human awakes in a perfect state of health. Adults are usually in their mid-twenties, with no physical defects; even amputated limbs have been restored. However, certain mental issues, such as chemical addiction, remain. All now start to age at a normal rate. They find they cannot reproduce, but they are capable of dying - only to be resurrected again, further down the valley. To ensure their wellbeing and comfort, each of them has a ‘grail’ tied to his/her wrist – an indestructible container capable of producing everything they need, from food and clothing to marijuana!
The story weaves and twists its way through encounters with Hermann Goering, Cyrano de Bergerac, Alice Liddell (remember Alice in Wonderland?), Baron von Richthofen, Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain and a host of others, all trying to find answers. They discover that the planet is basically one long river valley, millions of miles long. Widely varying communities exist all along its vastness – many of whom are warlike and some hostile to intruders. Murder, jealousy, love and passion abound, as it appears that, despite the ideal world in which they all live, humans cannot help reverting to type.
One of the many fascinating aspects to this story is the transformation Farmer brings to some well-known historical figures. Goering, for example, appears initially as a drug addict, but later reforms and becomes a priest of the Church of the Second Chance, a peaceful religious sect.
‘To Your Scattered Bodies Go’ ends with Sir Richard Burton declaring to Odysseus that he is ‘going to build a boat and sail up The River. All the way! Want to come along?’
‘Yes,’ I said and immediately reached for Book Two.
The adventure, battles, hope and mystery that Farmer created with the Riverworld series meant I had to be dragged away from the story to deal with life in the real world, counting the hours until I could return to it. I entered that world, even though sometimes it disturbed me. It made me want to create my own worlds, so I tried my hand at writing sci-fi, but later turned to horror and the paranormal. Now, I create frightening worlds in perfectly ordinary settings and thank goodness I don’t live there. In the back of my mind though, lurks a story of a life lived in a parallel universe. One day, I may even write it.
Philip José Farmer died five years ago, at the age of 91. Many tributes were paid to his prolific genius. Wherever he is now, I hope he has found his perfect Riverworld.
All five books in the Riverworld series are, mercifully, still in print. You can find them all over the internet in all sorts of editions, with a wide variety of covers. They are also available in Kindle. Whichever version you choose, enjoy your journey.
TO YOUR SCATTERED BODIES GO
Welcome to Riverworld . . .
It is not like our world - or any world that can be imagined by anyone but Philip Jose Farmer. It is huge and mysterious. It has a central river, rimmed by mountains, with a hidden source and an unknown end. Reborn there is every last soul who ever lived on Earth - from prehistoric apemen to moondwelling future civilisations.
Reborn there is Sir Richard Francis Burton, translator of The Arabian Nights, explorer, brawler, scholar, womaniser - adventurer. His quest to discover the end of the river, the meaning of the world's existence - and lovely Alice Hargreaves (the real-life model for Alice in Wonderland) form a science fiction adventure that is already recognised as a classic.
Winner of the Hugo Award for best novel, 1972